I sat at the edge of her mattress stroking her head as I often did before she fell asleep. “Mommy,” Lauren said in the dark, “are you going to die?”
My husband, Gary, and I hadn’t wrapped our heads around my new cancer diagnosis long enough to acknowledge out loud what life might look like with one of us missing, or more accurately, if I were missing. I wanted to ignore her question, to go back to the way things were when Gary and I were dreaming about vacation plans. But now that seemed like a lifetime ago.
Earlier in the month, my husband found a lump in my breast, a moment he calls a romance buster. He guided my fingers to the spot, and there it was, as firm and defined as an almond just under the surface of my skin. Soon after, I was diagnosed with stage three triple negative breast cancer that had spread to my lymph nodes and sternum. This type of cancer typically strikes younger women. It’s rarer, deadlier and more aggressive than other breast cancers. Because it doesn’t respond to hormonal therapy medicines, fewer treatment options are available.
“Best-case scenario,” the oncologist shockingly said, “you’ll be stuck with a frankenboob. But more likely, you’ll be dead in three months.” He looked at my husband and me and told us to get our affairs in order, a line I thought they only used in movies.
Later that night, my husband said out loud the words I dreaded most: “We have to tell Lauren.”
Our daughter had just turned 10, and birthday party debris still littered the floor of her room. The only thing worse than having cancer was how it would impact my daughter, and telling her about it was something I never wanted to do. “Give me a little more time,” I said, “just a few days.” But we couldn’t wait because I needed to start treatment immediately. I’d need to travel four hours each way to get it and spend some nights away from home.
The following night, the three of us gathered on the living room couch, Lauren squeezing in the middle. I wondered how much she knew about cancer, and I searched for the right words to explain what I didn’t fully understand myself. Lauren looked like she was witnessing something incomprehensible, like her brain was concurrently rejecting and assimilating the news.
Gary and I told her what we thought she needed to know, just the basics. My sister would stay with her while we were out of town. She’d still be able to go to school, and we’d stock up on her favorite foods. Gary described the giant grand piano in the lobby of the hospital and how it almost looked like a hotel.
But Lauren had other things on her mind. Later that night, Lauren and I climbed the stairs to her room. “Let’s get you tucked in,” I said, situating Scruffy and Rex under the covers. With glow-in-the-dark stars twinkling overhead, I stroked her hair and assumed she was drifting to sleep.
Instead, she asked me the question, obviously the only one on her mind — Was I going to die? Of course that’s what she wanted to know.
Am I going to die? I wondered too, but I didn’t dare say it.
It hung there for a minute, but then, as horrible as it sounds, I recognized it for the gift that it was. That question, spoken in a child’s voice, was liberating. It gave me clarity to think straight and give my child the parenting she needed. I realized my answer would shape her perspective of our family’s journey with cancer, regardless of the outcome. It would set the tone for all of us for whatever was to come. And while I wanted desperately to soften reality, I also needed to tell the truth.
Statistically, I had a 40 percent chance of survival. Until that moment, I’d accepted those odds as a death sentence. Her question, though, simple and direct, compelled me to make a clear and unequivocal decision: I would embrace my odds and hope for the best. “It’s true that some women die from breast cancer,” I said slowly, taking my time with my answer. “But I believe I’m going to live.” It was both optimistic and true. I told her more details about the treatment and the doctors who would take care of me. I described the medical facility and some of the machines I’d seen. It was real stuff, not good or bad — just what was.
When Lauren was born, a friend told me that like all babies, she would be my teacher, that from her I would learn many lessons. That prediction has come true in more ways than I ever could have imagined, but this particular lesson has been lasting. It’s important to tell the truth. It’s okay to believe in optimism, and it’s a gift to say out loud what needs to be said.
I survived 16 weeks of aggressive chemotherapy, breast cancer surgery and a month and a half of daily radiation. Now that I’ve passed my five-year mark, my chances of dying of triple negative breast cancer are statistically about the same as everyone else’s. The little girl who helped me grapple with the truth is now a flourishing high school student with dreams of becoming a filmmaker.
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